Vietnamese soup becomes a Chinatown trade

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Photo by Huong Giang

Most braised, herby soups had in Vietnam have come from China, it is generally agreed.

But the noodle soup with braised fried duck is an exception, according to a man of Chinese origin who sells the soup at a restaurant more than 50 years old in Ho Chi Minh City.

"We don't have this in China," says Duong Tri An, whose grandfather opened the shop after leaving Guangdong for Vietnam.

The soup includes noodles, a half or a quarter of the duck in one big piece, vegetables, mushrooms and different kinds of roots depending on the chef's choice.

The duck is fried and then braised with various Chinese herbs including the bark of eucommia, flavored seeds of aromatic plant anise, and the skin of Mandarin orange. The brown broth has strong tastes and smells, and is somewhat oily.

Mì vịt tiềm (noodle of braised duck), as the soup is called in Vietnamese, has become a popular dish in the city, especially in the Chinatown area of District 5, and it has not developed into regional variations like phở from Hanoi or the Hue vermicelli soup with beef.

The soup is served mostly from the evening until late at night when the city's heat cools off enough to tolerate such a high-calorie dish.

An says mì vịt tiềm has become a trade for Chinese people in the city although they all learned how to make it from a Vietnamese man.

He recalled his grandfather saying that the Vietnamese man from the northern city of Hai Phong had opened the first duck noodle shop in town, and his grandfather followed sometime later.

His family shop Hai Ky, the name chosen for many Chinese noodle shops in the city, used to be located in Chinatown's busy street at the time, Lacaze, which is now Nguyen Tri Phuong.

(Hai Ky noodle house)

Add: 349-351 Nguyen Trai Street, Ward 7, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City

Open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. for VND83,000 (US$4) a bowl, and VND40,000 apiece for side disheS

After 1975, the shop moved to an alley on Nguyen Trai Street.

There was a time they closed the shop because the family planned to move to another country, but it did not work out and they returned, only to find that other people had opened a noodle duck soup shop nearby, so their shop moved further down the street to avoid competition, An says.

But their soup has continued to do well, and made enough money for his mother to buy the house next door to expand the business.

The shop also serves the soup with crispy duck that involves more frying than braising, upon customers' demand, although that is not authentic.

An says they still receive old-time customers, nostalgic about a taste of the past.

He says his family makes their own noodles, using flour from Japan and mixing it with eggs, saving customers from the chemicals used in industrially-produced noodles.

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